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‘It’s just not done’: Could an unfinished DKU one day be great?

The academic building (pictured above) is one of the two buildings complete at DKU.
The academic building (pictured above) is one of the two buildings complete at DKU.

KUNSHAN, China—Trying his best to talk over the KTV karaoke music blasting down the hall, junior Jordan Elkins described to me the highs and lows of his semester abroad at Duke Kunshan University.

We were in one of the lavishly designed common spaces in DKU's conference center. Students and faculty had been living in the conference center because the residential buildings were still not complete. In fact, the conference center had just been completed a couple weeks prior to my Nov. 19 arrival—before that, students were living and taking classes in a nearby hotel.

Despite the unconventional living arrangements, students living on Central Campus would be wildly jealous of the DKU facilities. The rooms were large with king-sized beds, and the common rooms had plenty of space for studying or socializing.

But it was clear DKU had gone through various hoops to sell an experience, without providing the actual promised experience. When students lived in the hotel the first two months of their semester abroad, they lived very comfortably, but the morning egg-white omelet and croissant did not make up for a slow Internet connection and lack of an academic environment, Elkins wrote in a Nov. 6 column in The Chronicle.

Even though students had finally arrived at DKU, it appeared they were made as comfortable as possible to make up for studying abroad on an incomplete campus.

“My personal thought is, I think DKU is gonna be the best thing to ever happen to education in China,” Elkins told The Chronicle in November. “Right now, it's just not done.”

Unfinished business

DKU has a long history of not being done.

Academic Council detailed plans to begin working on Kunshan facilities December 2009, which were slated to open Fall 2012. The campus opening was then delayed to Spring 2013 due to weather-related construction issues, then-Provost Peter Lange said in a 2011 Chronicle article. Construction slowed to almost a complete halt in 2012 due to insufficient funding and construction issues, delaying the opening to Fall 2014.

The campus did open Fall 2014, but not in time for students’ arrivals. Despite the facts that students now live on campus, only two of the six promised buildings were functioning at the time of my visit.

The incomplete nature of the campus has affected the experience, several students said.

Elkins told me he had not been on campus for a single weekend while studying at DKU, mostly because “there’s not much to do on campus socially.”

Students began to address these concerns by starting various on-campus activities, like photography and reading clubs. A varsity club that performs various physical activities, like soccer and hiking, also exists for students, but meets off campus due to a lack of facilities.

Whereas most Duke students socialize several times a week while abroad on other programs, the social life at DKU does not compare, Elkins added.

“It’s a little more low key than other abroad experiences,” he said.

The academic building is the only other structure complete on campus, which is where students take their classes. But with the other four buildings still in construction mode, the campus is relatively quiet. As of my Nov. 19 visit, the library consisted of a few bookshelves, and one could not even purchase a T-shirt at the bookstore. There was one small cafe in the conference center with sandwiches and fruit, but for large student gatherings like the KTV karaoke night, administrators order from off campus.

“It’s a new establishment…. There have been challenges, so we handled that well,” Kennedy Opondo, a student from Kenya pursuing a master’s degree in global health, told The Chronicle in November. “The program itself is quite good…. I find the experience at DKU—for now it is okay.”

Some may choose to find respite from the reality of DKU’s on-campus situation by venturing into Kunshan, but it too has its limitations. The campus is not close to being within walking distance of the main town, requiring access to a vehicle. A Duke-sponsored shuttle does take students into town, Opondo said, but Shanghai is the more popular destination choice among students.

“If we were in Shanghai we would be of no significance because of the other institutions.”—Mary Bullock, executive vice chancellor of DKU

Students will venture into Shanghai once or twice in a given week, Opondo said.

Elkins also added that he did not find Kunshan to be “the most interesting city.”

Not-so-nearby Kunshan

With a notebook, pen and camera, I asked the hotel concierge to call the cab to take me into Kunshan on my first full day in China.

A quick search online had told me that the must-sees in the city were to try the Aozao noodle—which literally translates to "foul noodle"—and Tingling Park.

Part zen garden, part amusement park, Tingling Park was an interesting experience. Maybe it was the time I decided to show up (mid-afternoon) but the amusement park was eerily empty. There were several brightly colored kids’ rides decorated with cartoon characters like Minnie Mouse, but probably only four families present.

If anything, the park was bizarre. I walked out of the amusement park to find a giant lake to my left and a set of stairs leading up to a large, gold buddha statue and heavy incense. In the lake, there were giant inflatable devices that people could walk into to then glide over the lake, as well as colorful boats in the shape of mice. Up the stairs to the giant buddha, a woman was practicing tai chi. One part of the park was literally serving as a place of worship while overlooking a lake filled with various games.

The most important element of the park was the memorial dedicated to Gu Yanwu—a Kunshan native who was part of a 19th-century movement to combine Western teaching with Chinese tradition—which gave a detailed account of the philosopher’s life.

The park itself was worth seeing while I was in Kunshan, but I could not say I would go out of my way to see it if I had limited time in China. Other than the park, I found the rest of Kunshan to be lacking. There were several small restaurants and some clothing and jewelry shops, but other than that there wasn't much to do.

But the main takeaway I got from my time wandering around Kunshan was that the ability to speak Chinese was certainly necessary. I walked into about 10 different stores and none of the store owners spoke English. When I tried to cab home, I was kicked out of three cabs because the drivers did not speak English either. I approached a police officer who also could not understand me.

Eventually, I walked to an international hotel where I managed to get a concierge to write the name of my hotel in Chinese characters, which I then showed to the next available cab driver.

It is not necessarily a bad thing that one must speak Chinese to navigate Kunshan. DKU students noted that their Chinese improved by attending Chinese language classes at DKU and through their experiences in Kunshan itself.

“I was a bit apprehensive to what it was going to be like, but by the end, it was okay,” Sambhavna Bisivas Shinav, a global semester undergraduate student, told The Chronicle in November about navigating the city.

My apprehension with Kunshan mainly stemmed from how little there was to do there—students going to DKU would need a lively campus environment for an enjoyable experience. This is particularly concerning considering that the school will still need several years to get to a point where it could become a fully thriving campus.

“You can’t really generalize about Chinese students believe X and American students believe Y—there is always a diversity of opinions about different things.”—Vicki Russell, DKU writing professor

Mary Bullock, the executive vice chancellor of DKU who will retire summer 2015, compared Kunshan to Durham in that it’s a small city with potential for growth.

Kunshan does have potential for growth—it is one of the most rapidly developing cities in China. Its GDP has grown from 20 billion yuan in 2000 to 210.028 billion in 2010.

“I have become very fond of Kunshan. From an institutional strategic viewpoint we have a partnership with the leaders of Kunshan and we are important to Kunshan,” Bullock said. “If we were in Shanghai we would be of no significance because of the other institutions.”

But the fact that students prefer to travel into Shanghai once or twice a week speaks volumes in and of itself.

The DKU website advertises that living in Kunshan is “minutes from Shanghai.” During the opening events at DKU, administrators also referred to the bullet train that shuttles people from Kunshan to Shanghai in a mere 22 minutes.

But to say the campus is “minutes from Shanghai” is certainly a stretch, considering it takes 30 minutes just to drive from the DKU campus to the train station. There is a bus that runs every hour from campus to the station, but factoring in the wait-time for the bus, the bus ride itself, the train to Shanghai’s station and subsequent subways to specific parts of the city, a conservative estimate would place the trip at 90 minutes.

The trip from Kunshan to Shanghai was relatively easy since I was equipped with index cards of locations in Chinese characters, but it definitely required that I set aside a day to make it worthwhile.

I could see why students ventured to Shanghai as often as they did—it was a far better cultural experience than my time in Kunshan. About 10 minutes into my arrival in the city I stumbled upon a tea festival I navigated with some Peking University students I met on the subway. I saw the Bund—the city's waterfront—and walked around the Old City. Shanghai has so much history that one day simply is not enough to fully take it in.

Why study in Kunshan?

Although students had mixed reviews on the city itself and campus life, most students spoke highly of their academic experience at DKU.

Elkins said he learned a vast amount of Chinese because of his experience at DKU and felt the classroom experience was more focused on learning than getting a grade when compared to Duke.

Cathy Fu, a Chinese global semester undergraduate student, noted that the courses were challenging at first due to the high volume of English reading, but if she were to retake an exam from earlier in the semester, her grade would markedly improve.

Duke professors also spoke highly of their experience. Vicki Russell, senior lecturing fellow and director of the Writing Studio, taught a course called “writing across cultures.” She said that what made the course so interesting was teaching students from so many different cultural backgrounds.

“I was particularly interested in was taking advantage of the fact that I had a much more diverse group of students than I ever had in my teaching career, and I’ve taught for 45 years,” she said.

Russell added that she did not have to structure her class any differently with the variety of students at DKU.

“I found it was smooth sailing…. There was lively debate about different issues and it was interesting,” she said. “You can’t really generalize about Chinese students believe X and American students believe Y—there is always a diversity of opinions about different things.”

Russell also added that academic freedom was "not an issue at all.” Academic freedom at DKU has been a concern since 2009, when the Board of Trustees opened discussion on building the city-funded campus. The government has cracked down on Chinese professors considered to have outspoken views, and various academic topics have been banned from universities.

When I asked Duke trustee Xiqing Gao about academic freedom at the grand opening, he referred to it as a “relative concept.”

“I know there is a certain line you don’t want to cross, but its not a line of truth versus false—it’s a line of societal norm and cultural acceptance,” he told The Chronicle in November. “Talk about Taiwan going independent and then maybe you have a problem…. There [is] certain speech we can’t have.”

Although students reported positive academic experiences, it is questionable how that experience could change as DKU is transformed into a full-fledged, four-year university down the road. If Gao himself admits that there are topics not up for discussion, how much of Duke will be present in DKU?

With state-of-the-art facilities and praise-worthy academics, DKU could very well turn into a powerhouse in just a few years. The campus’ completion has lagged for far too long, but there’s promise evident in the few buildings I saw, which rival anything on Duke’s campus. And one could argue that the same qualms I have about Kunshan were the same qualms others had about Durham.

As always with DKU, it’s a waiting game.

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